Seafood in Taiwan is serious business

Posted: Sunday, August 18, 2002

KAOHSIUNG, Taiwan -- The clawing crabs and flopping fish inside the glass tanks stacked as high as televisions at an appliance store look like they're part of a low-budget, roadside aquarium show.

But the swimming critters aren't there to be looked at. They're there to be eaten -- fried in garlic, smothered in tangy red sauce, steamed with green scallions or almost any other way you prefer.

This is southern Taiwan where eating seafood is an extremely serious business. The only way any respectable Taiwanese would do it is by plucking it from the water while it's still flipping and cook it quick. Kaohsiung, Taiwan's second-largest city, is a great place to try out the tradition.

And on Chichin Island -- a narrow strip of land that stretches for seven miles in front of Kaohsiung's harbor -- it doesn't get much cheaper. Most dishes go for as little as $2.90 a plate.

A harbor ferry sails to the island, and seafood restaurants line the main strip. The sound of restaurant owners yelling ''fresh seafood!'' to potential customers mixes with the noise of passing motorbikes and chattering diners.

To tempt the palates of customers even more, the restaurateurs rattle off ways the seafood can be prepared: fried, barbecued, steamed, stir-fried and braised.

If you like seafood raw, no problem. Try some Japanese sashimi.

Spread out on a wide steel table and resting atop small cubes of ice, the selection is wide -- maybe more than most would want. There are oysters, mussels, red fish, squid, shrimp, seaweed, sea cucumbers, squid, fish heads of all shapes and sizes, as well as innards and ovaries.

Although it's one of priciest catches, lobster is exceptionally good. While in Maine, eat it with butter. But in Taiwan, be adventurous and try it boiled with tofu in miso -- Japanese-style soybean soup.

The red braised scallops are also tasty, as is the fried red gurnard dipped in flour. The fish is known for its red color, wide wing-like fins and flat face. In Taiwan, it's called hong niang -- which means matchmaker in Chinese.

Topped off with a plate of stir-fried spinach and garlic, the small feast cost a little over $30 and was enough to feed three people.

To walk off a big meal, stroll down Chichin's main drag and visit Tienhou Palace, part of the island's rich blend of the old and new.

The small temple has long sweeping eaves and is dedicated to the sea goddess Matsu, the patron saint of fishermen. Built in 1691, Tienhou Temple is one of more than 500 temples in Taiwan that were dedicated to Matsu.

It was one of the earliest built in Kaohsiung, when fishing was still the main industry, instead of shipping. Today, the harbor is the third-largest container port in the world.

At night the temple eaves are lit up like a Christmas tree, giving the island a carnival-like atmosphere. Not far off from the temple, children sit on red, blue and purple plastic chairs playing makeshift version of the Japanese pinball game called Pachinko.

An old man strolls with his grandson. A cigarette dangles from his lips while the slippers of the young boy at his side sound out ''squeak'' ''squeak'' ''squeak.''

To get some desert, take the ferry back to the other side of the harbor and head to Yencheng district, one of the city's oldest stomping grounds and best places to cool off. When the afternoon heat begins to scorch, head to Kaohsiung Grandma's Shaved Ice store on Seven Sages Rd -- ''Chihsien Lu'' in Chinese -- and try one of Taiwan's favorite heat-buster snacks: shaved ice topped with fruit

The deserts called ''bing'' -- which means ice in Mandarin -- are sold in Yencheng district, near the entrance to the port and city's popular Love Canal.

The store's original bing is a mountain of ice with homemade plum sauce and dried plums. The more modern variations, like the mango bing, have a combination of fresh slices of mango and a fruity sauce topped by two scoops of vanilla ice cream, all piled on top ice.

If you're a real ice lover, try the Super Fruit Bing, a delicious combination of bananas, watermelon, guava and pineapple -- topped with two ice cream scoops and fruit flavored sauces.

If none of those interest you, select your own and top it with your favorite fruits. With each bite, the heat of the city will melt away.

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